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Australia’s own Indo-Pacific fortress – The case for redeveloping Cocos Islands

Set amid an idyllic island paradise, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands have long played a role in Australia’s defence policy and military history – now, with the shift in regional power dynamics, the strategically located islands are poised to play an increasingly important role in Australia’s future defence doctrine.

Today, strategic sea-lines-of-communication (SLOC) support over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea (SCS) and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.

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Meanwhile, the Indian Ocean and its critical global SLOC are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world's seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy. 

Australia is not immune to these geo-political and strategic factors and, as an island nation heavily dependent on sea transport – with 99 per cent of the nation's exports, a substantial amount of its strategic imports, namely liquid fuel, and a substantial proportion of the nation's domestic freight depending on the ocean – it is a necessity to understand and adapt and introduce a focus on maritime power projection and sea control.

The unique geographic realities in Indo-Pacific Asia range from vast swathes of deep, open ocean to Australia's west, to relatively shallow, congested and narrow archipelagic bound choke points, including the Straits of Malacca, Lombok Strait and into the South China Sea. 

Australia's key advantage in the region is a far-flung coral atoll archipelago straddling the strategic waterways of the Indo-Pacific namely key SLOC in the Straits of Malacca, Lombok and Sunda: the Cocos Islands, located 3,694 kilometres from both Perth and Darwin are the nation's fortress in the Indo-Pacific.

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Australia's own Guam, Pearl Harbour or Diego Garcia 

Combining a range of 'joint force' facilities, such as naval and air force facilities including Naval Base Guam, Anderson Air Force Base and Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickham, and key ISR facilities including the Air Force Satellite Control Network as part of US Air Force Space Command, Guam, Pearl Harbour and Diego Garcia, all serve as unique force multiplying forward-deployed basing, logistics and and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance hubs for the US Armed Forces and the broader US intelligence community.

Australia's own Cocos (Keeling) Islands have long been identified as a key strategic force multiplier for both Australian and allied-use. As recently as 2017, the joint standing committee on the national capital and external territories sought to identify the strategic opportunities for developing and enhancing the strategic importance and capabilities of the islands to support increased Australian engagement in the Indo-Pacific. 

The islands have also become increasingly important to Australia's allies, mainly the US as it has sought to 'pivot' towards Asia in response to increasing Chinese assertiveness.

The Obama administration's 'Asia Pivot' outlined in 2012 kicked off growing speculation about the future of the islands, with The Washington Post identifying the strategic importance of the islands to the US and Australia, which ABC journalist Samantha Hawley explained during an interview with then defence minister Stephen Smith: "It might be down the track, but it's undeniable that the US is eyeing off the Cocos Islands as a base to launch drones and manned US surveillance aircraft.

"The Washington Post newspaper has catapulted the prospect back into the headlines. The report states aircraft based in the Cocos Islands would be well positioned to launch spy flights over the South China Sea and would be considered as a replacement for the American Diego Garcia air base."  

The existing facilities on the island, including the single, 2,441-metre paved runway, combined with limited lagoon anchorages present a virtual blank canvas for interested parties to redevelop and expand the tactical and strategic opportunities of the location. Nevertheless, such redevelopment would require extensive investment in deep water berths, liquid fuel-storage to support forward deployed naval and air assets, accommodation and communications facilities.   

Located 1,703 kilometres from Singapore and 1,296 kilometres from Jakarta and the adjacent SLOCs, the Cocos Islands are not without their challenges to military redevelopment  namely the small land area of approximately 14 square kilometres, combined with low elevation, and the relative isolation of the facilities making resupply difficult, particularly in the event of attack. 

Despite these challenges, the strategic significance of the Cocos Islands, particularly when combined with next-generation Australian naval and air assets like the Attack Class submarines, Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels, and key power projection platforms like the Canberra Class amphibious warfare ships and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, MQ-4C Triton, E-7A Wedgetail and KC-30A Multirole Tanker Transport (MRTT), highlights the importance of developing a 'joint force' facility.

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands will become increasingly important as part of Australia's strategic calculations, particularly as the balance of power between the US and China continues to narrow and the rising Asian power seeks to increase its influence and coercion beyond the reclamation of islands and development of an anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) system in the South China Sea.

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Australia’s own Indo-Pacific fortress – The case for redeveloping Cocos Islands
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